Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Forest Has a Song

Poems by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. Illustrated by Robbin Gourley. 32 p. Clarion Books/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 26, 2013. 9780618843497. (Finished copy provided by publisher.)

Even though I live in northern Bergen County, in New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the Union, I am lucky in that I live in a town that abuts a reservoir and the watershed land is (a long) walking distance from my home. I don't get out there enough, but the option is always there. Happily, my sons regularly rode their bikes along the deer trails and also enjoy camping, hiking and being outdoors, in general. 

There's a creek that runs along the field at my school. Fifth graders go on several nature walks down by the creek with the naturalist from the town's rather large nature center as part of the science curriculum. Sixth graders study earth science and attend a three day environmental field trip. There is also a thriving garden club. So the students at my school have regular access to nature should they choose to get outside.

Luckily for them that do and them that don't, this book will be available in our school library as soon as I finish reviewing it. These 26 poems are the perfect antidote for NDD, Nature Deficit Disorder or even poetry avoidance. This gorgeous collection quietly invites young readers to get outside, to observe, to listen and smell.

A young girl hears a pinecone fall and views that and the spicy breeze emanating from the forest as an invitation to visit in the first poem. We follow this girl and her dog through the seasons as she notes the delights that wait to be discovered. Some of my favorites are:

Forest News
I stop to read 
the Forest News
in mud or fallen snow.
Articles are printed 
by critters on the go.

Foxes pass.
Dear run through.
Turkeys scratch
fort hidden food.
Young raccoons
drink sips of creek.
Mouse and hawk
play hide-and-seek.
Here a possum
climbs a tree trunk
with her child.
And in this place
while people sleep
a rabbit hops.
A housecat creeps.

Scribble hints
in footprints
tell about the day.
I stop to read
the Forest News
before it's worn away.

I'm not sure what the rules are for sharing entire poems, so I will just share the titles of the others that tickled me - Fossil; Proposal; Lichens; Woodpecker; and Colorful Actor. But really, each poem offers unique moments to contemplate. 

Teachers, looking for lovely examples to teach the concept of imagery?  Did I mention poetry avoidance? Do you have students who hate poetry? This collection is an evocative mix of bite-sized and longer poems. Each poem is accompanied by lovely,watery illustrations that complement and don't distract from the verse. 

Use of this book need not be limited to use by language arts teachers. Science teachers! Why not incorporate this book in your unit on biomes, or seasons? Why not incorporate poetry into the curriculum regularly? (Take a look at Joyce Sidman's work. I shared Ubiquitous with the seventh grade science teacher, who was delighted to incorporate it into one of her units. But why stop there?)

Bear with me.

Ms. Ludwig VanDerwater presents workshops and presented at a conference last summer that my superintendent happened to attend. She was so impressed by her ideas that she hired her to come to our district, one day at the elementary school and one day at the middle school. 

What a day she had at our school! She started during morning meeting time with a presentation on using poetry across the curriculum. She managed to cram more ideas into 25 minutes than I've gotten from workshops of any length from an hour to a half-day to full-day. One idea that stayed with me since was the suggestion that teachers consider asking the student to compose a poem as an assessment tool. She pointed out that students who can successfully incorporate the learning objective into a poem have mastered the idea. 

I found myself nodding.

She then visited class after class throughout the day and got students writing poetry! And they were excited by it! And their poems were good!

Was I predisposed to liking this debut because of my experience with the workshop and class observation? I won't deny that I was impressed. The poet is passionate and generous. (Visit her website.) Even I, with my tin ear, was able to appreciate the rhyme schemes she pointed out.

This collection is an impressive debut. One of my first thoughts after reading the book was that fifth graders could compose poems after one of their nature walks with Mr. Mark, or that the sixth graders could write poems when they return from their Greenkill trip (they're leaving early tomorrow morning). The teachers could bind them into an anthology or publish them on the school website. Asking students to write a poem is asking them to reflect; it's asking them to dig deep; and, it gives them the time to create and make meaningful connections. 


  1. I love the look and sound of this.

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful review! My husband is a science teacher, and I went to him for so much advice in the writing of FOREST. To imagine it read in science classes makes me smile at the full-circleness of it all. I so appreciate your words.